Networking can be great fun – if you’re an extrovert or already know the person you’re talking to. But what if you’re surrounded by complete strangers? How do you just go up to someone and start a conversation out of the blue?
Most people find it distinctly uncomfortable to talk to people they don’t know. In times past, we didn’t really face this challenge often, because the very idea of speaking to a complete stranger was socially unacceptable. You never spoke to someone unless you were formally introduced by a mutual acquaintance whose judgment of the other person you trusted. These days, however, we’re living in a society that makes striking up a conversation with a stranger not only culturally acceptable but sometimes even expected. Luckily for us, most people are more than willing to talk to someone they’ve just met – or, indeed, simply made eye contact with across the buffet table.
Still, it can be difficult to think of what to say or how to start a conversation with someone you don’t know, and don’t know anything about. Here are a few tips to get you started the next time you find yourself facing a complete stranger and are wondering what to say.
Comment on a piece of jewelry, item of clothing, etc.
If you’re at a networking event, the other people there are almost certainly dressed to impress. Or, at least, they’re hoping they are. By commenting on a piece of jewelry, a decorative scarf, a nice jacket, etc., you’re complimenting your conversational partner, reassuring them and giving yourself an easy opening into a conversation. In addition, you’ve virtually guaranteed yourself a positive impression; after all, everyone enjoys being flattered. (By the way, this works when striking up a conversation anywhere, not just at an event.)
Ask them how they know the host.
This is an easy way to get to know about someone at an event without getting personal. After all, everyone there has to know the host somehow (unless they’re a guest of a guest, which is also useful information). By asking about their connection to the host, you can quickly learn who the movers and shakers are, and who might connections that could prove to be interesting or useful for you.
Ask them about themselves.
People love to talk about themselves. You can start the ball rolling by asking them why they’re at the event or location, what they do, if they live nearby and so on. Given even the slightest hint of interest, most people will be more than happy to go on at length about their own interests, ideas and opinions. All you have to do is jump in with the occasional (and sincere), “That sounds interesting; tell me more about that…” and before you know it, you’ll know more about them than their own parents do – and they’ll think you’re a stunning conversationalist, to boot.
Ask about a current event or news item.
Almost everybody has something to say about what’s going on in the world around them. All you have to do is ask. This works especially well if you can spin the question so that it relates to the reason you’re networking in the first place. For example, if you’re at a convention for homebuilders, you could ask if recent economic news is affecting their business, or if they’ve seen the latest bleeding-edge materials coming out of the labs. But even if you are in a situation where you know absolutely nothing about a person (say, meeting them with a mutual friend over lunch), a simple, unadorned question about a current events or news item is often more than enough to get them talking.
Talking to complete strangers can be a daunting proposition for someone who is normally more retiring, or simply not used to making the first move. But with a few simple questions in your “meet and greet” toolbox, you’ll have more than enough openers to let talk your way through an entire room full of strangers. Before long, starting conversation with people you’ve never met will be second nature, and you’ll find friends you never knew you had wherever you happen to go.